JOHNSON CITY (Sept. 7, 2021) – East Tennessee State University’s Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services recently completed 20 years of coordinating the Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP), an annual program in which students work with a local community to address a critical need that affects the community's long-term economic development.
The ATP is supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which annually provides both a grant to support the student work and a forum in which students present their research in Washington, D.C. The program offers a unique opportunity for students to get out of the classroom and into their communities, developing leadership and civic skills. Up to 16 colleges and universities from across the Appalachian region participate in the program each year.
ETSU’s Center of Excellence led in developing the ATP and has administered it for each of its 20 years. Dr. Ron Roach, chair of the ETSU Appalachian Studies Department and Center director, who has directed the ATP since 2016, said, “I am honored to be a part of the Appalachian Teaching Project and so pleased that our Center has been able to lead it over the years. No other program has been so effective in bringing faculty, students, the ARC, and community members together in a common cause for our region. We are extremely grateful to the ARC for its strong support of this initiative.”
The ATP had its beginnings in 1999, when professors from Appalachian centers and institutes approached the ARC, looking for a new way to collaborate. Dr. Jean Haskell, director of the ETSU Center at that time, stated, “Our goals were to strengthen the connections among our programs, participate more fully with ARC, and help develop the next generation of leaders for Appalachia. We decided to offer a course at each of our campuses that would engage students in community-based projects. The leadership at ARC at the time, Dr. Jesse White and Tom Hunter, enthusiastically endorsed the project.”
The first ATP took place in November 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Faculty and students from 13 colleges and universities gathered with ARC personnel in Washington, D.C., for the first ATP Student Research Forum. Since then, a total of 29 different institutions from 12 Appalachian states have participated at one time or another.
Kostas Skordas, director of Research and Evaluation at ARC, has worked with the ATP since 2002 and has played a major role in its success. He stated, “The Appalachian Teaching Project incorporates the ideal balance between research theory, teaching pedagogy and community service. ARC supports this initiative because it builds leadership skills by taking students outside the classroom, working with local communities to address endemic challenges. Over the past 20 years, ATP has enabled literally thousands of college students across Appalachia to participate in local economic development, in ways that influence their personal and professional development throughout their lives.”
ATP class projects have helped communities respond to a wide range of issues, including downtown revitalization, tourism development, cultural heritage, water quality, education, health and wellness, food insecurity, leadership development, and the opioid crisis. In addition, projects have often resulted in tangible outcomes for communities, with long-lasting benefits, such as community kitchens and gardens, hiking and walking trails, community theater productions, public art installations, collections of oral history and historical artifacts, promotional materials, websites, training programs, local school programming, strategic plans and grant applications, and much more.
“After spending most of my career focused on education in Appalachia, I can say that there isn’t anything quite like ARC’s Appalachian Teaching Project,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. Manchin worked as an educator in Marion County (West Virginia) Schools, served on the faculty of Fairmont State University in Fairmont, West Virginia, and was the director of the university’s first Community Service Learning Program. “I believe in leveraging the creativity, ingenuity and potential from within our region to enhance economic vitality. The ATP builds the next generation of leaders through hands-on, applicable work to help solve real problems in our communities.”
Over the years, more than 2,000 students have participated in the ATP. In a 2019 survey of ATP alumni, 92% of respondents agreed that the ATP helped them develop a better understanding of the Appalachian region and helped increase their knowledge of sustainable community development. Students also credited the ATP with helping them develop better skills in leadership, communication and civic engagement.
Many students were also deeply moved and inspired by the experience. One respondent wrote: “I don’t quite know how to put the impact of the ATP into words. It touched a part of my mind and soul that I didn’t even know existed. The importance of this project was staggering. The ATP and ARC marked my years at Radford University more than any other collegiate experience.”
For many students, the ATP research forum marks their first trip to the nation’s capital, their first presentation at a formal conference, and the first time they have interacted with students, faculty and ARC staff members from other parts of the region.
Dr. Roberta Herrin, who directed ATP from 2004-2015, said, “The ATP immersed students in communities, baptizing them, so to speak, in the beauty, culture, disparities, ills and possibilities of the region, all of which were showcased at the annual conference. It was impossible to attend the annual ATP gathering of students, faculty and ARC staff and administrators without being educated about the region, changed in both subtle and powerful ways, and moved to action.”
Messiah Williams-Cole completed the 2019 ATP course at Auburn University, taught by Dr. Mark Wilson. The following year, while still a college senior, Williams-Cole was elected mayor of his hometown of Camp Hill, Alabama, becoming the youngest person ever elected to that position. He credits his experience in the ATP with helping prepare him to get involved in public service.
“I think that participating in ATP projects allowed me to see the legwork of community engagement and learn that the true backbone of America is made up of those who sit behind the scenes and work for the love of the cause and not any personal gain,” he said. “The way that Dr. Wilson taught the ATP classes, focused on seemingly small community problems that were arguably the result of larger systematic problems, created a drive in me to always work for the betterment of everyone.”
In 2017, the ARC added the ATP Fellows program, which offers ATP students the opportunity to serve as a summer research fellow at ARC headquarters in Washington. Courtney Rhoades, a graduate of the ETSU master’s program in Appalachian Studies and a 2018 ATP Fellow, is now employed as the Black Lung Organizer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
“My time in this program, and as an ATP Fellow,” Rhoades said, “made me further examine issues faced in our communities, by leaning not on the expertise of academia but rather on the community members themselves for solutions. This outlook continues to impact my work in my current position.”
As the ATP begins its third decade, it is expanding to new audiences and new parts of Appalachia. A new ARC staff member, Jessica Mosley, program manager for Academies and Institutes, has joined Skordas to help oversee the program. For 2021, the program has received a record number of proposals and is poised to field its largest number of participants yet. After holding the 2020 research forum online due to COVID-19, program leaders are eager to return to an in-person model.
“The ATP has proven to be a more effective model for leadership development and community engagement than I think we ever imagined,” Roach said. “We have more interest than ever and I look forward to seeing how the program grows in the future.”
The ARC is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 counties across the Appalachian region. ARC’s mission is to innovate, partner and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.
The ETSU Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services, founded in 1984, includes the Regional Resources Institute, the Archives of Appalachia, and the Reece Museum. The Center is part of ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies, which offers the renowned Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program, graduate degrees in Appalachian Studies and in Heritage Interpretation and Museum Studies, an Appalachian, Scottish and Irish Studies program with a study abroad experience, and several undergraduate minors. Scholarships and online courses are available.